Rice Football never got hot on a cold and gloomy Senior Day, falling at home to UTSA in their final home game of the season.
On a cold and rainy Saturday morning, Rice football froze up. Injuries and missed opportunities stifled a Rice team that has yet to complete a complete four-quarter performance this season, despite notching five victories along the way. They did not get their sixth win on Saturday, falling to UTSA in a one-sided result on Senior Day. Here are a few immediate reactions from the game:
From bad to worse
On paper, the weather seemed to be something that should work in favor of the Owls, who entered their final home game of the season with a slew of injuries at several key positions. Starting quarterback TJ McMahon was unable to go, as were the Owls’ top four corners: Jordan Dunbar, Sean Fresch, Lamont Narcisse and Jojo Jean.
From a personnel standpoint, an ugly game with lot of running and field position battles was much preferred to an aerial back-and-forth against the Roadrunners and star quarterback Frank Harris.
Rice did get an ugly game, but the weather wasn’t at fault.
Quarterback Wiley Green was injured on the Owls’ second possession, getting blasted from behind and fumbling in the process. UTSA recovered and scored their second-consecutive touchdown on as many plays.
The Owls’ defense opened the game three-and-out and Green hit Bradley Rozner on a slant to get Rice out of the shadow of their own endzone. Then the drive stalled on fourth and one, Rice punted, and the tumultuous sequence of injuries and turnovers commenced.
Turnovers fall, but it’s not enough
At some point, the turnovers that have plagued Rice football this season were going to stop, or at the very least, they would slow down. Despite the Owls’ issues with protecting the football, tipped passes and fumbles from a myriad of different players seemed unlikely to persist forever. Despite the injuries and bad weather, Rice did a good job protecting the football against UTSA.
In their first 10 games, Rice won the turnover battle twice. They were +5 against McNeese and +1 against UAB. They won both games. Against FBS opponents, Rice hadn’t forced more than two turnovers in a game this season whereas they’d produced at least three giveaways four times.
The Roost Podcast: Stay tuned for the game recap this week – Rice Football vs UTSA
Against UTSA, Rice forced two turnovers. George Nykawol knocked the ball out himself and Myron Morrison made a play in coverage to intercept Frank Harris.
The Owls’ first turnover on offense came on a play in which Green was injured, with pressure coming unblocked off the edge. It’s not excusable by any means, but it wasn’t a lapse by a ballcarrier or decision-maker, the Achilles’ heel of the offense to this point. That came the very next drive when Kobie Campbell put the ball on the deck.
The third turnover came on an errant pass from Itraish, who was subsequently benched for true freshman AJ Padgett. That gave Rice a minus differential in the turnover margin once again.
It all comes down to quarterback, again
Watching Green leave with an injury with TJ McMahon standing on the sideline, already ruled out, was a gut punch for a Rice offense that has taken such large strides this season. Trailing at home with a backup, backup quarterback, there were two plays that highlighted what could have been.
With Shawqi Itraish at quarterback early in the second quarter and Rice trailing 21-0, Isaiah Esdale burst through double coverage on the far side of the field. He had seven yards on both defenders and plenty of green grass in front of him. It was a walk in touchdown. Itraish underthrew all three players, incomplete. Rice got no points on the drive.
Following a turnover by the Roadrunners shortly after, Rice dialed up a double reverse pass. The ball was tossed back to Itraish who had Bradley Rozner wide open down the field. He couldn’t release the ball quick enough, throwing it into the ground. Once more, no points.
It’s not all Itraish’s fault, but these two moments do highlight the challenges of calling an offense in the rain with your third string redshirt freshman quarterback at the controls. It’s hard. And you can’t miss your opportunities. On Saturday, Rice did and the result was, unfortunately, predictable.
The silver lining, if there was one, was an intriguing debut by true freshman AJ Padgett. He connected on a 43-yard touchdown pass to Bradley Rozner on fourth down in the fourth quarter. Could he see action in the season finale against UTSA? At this point, anything seems feasible.
As soon as the clock hit zero at Rice Stadium a few weeks ago, securing an upset for the visiting Charlotte 49ers, it seemed more likely than not that the Owls would find themselves here.
Defeating Western Kentucky or UTSA didn’t seem completely far-fetched, but the wiggle-room in the Owls’ search for six wins had evaporated. They needed to win one of their final three to reach that mark, but that stretch included games against the top three teams in the standings.
Now, it all comes down to this. Rice sits at 5-6, losers of back-to-back games for the first time this season. They travel to North Texas next weekend, in need of that final elusive win to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time since 2014.
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Death, Taxes, Wiley Green and injuries
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